Apple Needs a Fresh Marketing Vision, and We Have Some Ideas

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Photo: David Arky

It hasn’t been that long since Apple’s ads were considered as innovative and trend-setting as its devices. Every plucky exchange between pitchmen Justin Long and John Hodgman was greeted with bouquets. Every new iPhone spot earned praise for deftly fusing product functionality with consumer desire.

But lately, Apple’s marketing genius has fallen far from the tree, losing its lustre just as the company’s iconic image has dimmed in an aggressively competitive marketplace.

Much has already been made of the brand’s perceived weaknesses in the wake of founder Steve Jobs’ death. But nearly two years later, the question remains: Can the company ever hope to regain its once-indomitable position and creative mojo? “Apple is in a period of transition, almost in a state of pause, trying to figure out where it’s going, and the advertising reflects that,” says Tracy Stokes, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Apple’s campaigns once embodied the company’s confidence and sense of purpose under Jobs. Along the way, they helped build a hugely positive public perception of the brand and cement its status. The ads struck an emotional chord by showcasing Apple’s cool devices by way of witty banter, pointed humor and deceptively simple visual élan. Product wasn’t just the hero—product, for all practical purposes, was the brand. Long and Hodgman, remember, were human stand-ins in for machines, the former cast as the hip, efficient Mac, the latter as the lumbering, hapless PC. Meanwhile, ads for the iPhone had fingers dancing across a touchscreen, each function revealed like a movement in a high-tech symphony.

The latest pitch, “Designed by Apple in California,” launched last month by longtime agency TBWAMedia Arts Lab, also shows off the company’s products. Yet the devices are no longer front and center, nor are they particularly new or novel. Apple watchers say the current work reflects and reinforces the image of a company that has lost its way, not quite sure what its next move should be.

“Something has definitely changed,” says Judy Austin, associate professor of communications at Boston University and a former creative at agencies including Hill Holliday. “An infinite number of things, including ads, feed into Apple’s brand impression. Over time, it rose to mythic status. It’s like feet of clay.” Austin says from a consumer perspective, it’s disappointing to see the company lose traction, noting that over time, the slippage becomes cumulative, almost self-fulfilling.

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